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Simply building latrines isn't going to end open defecation even by 2039: Dean Spears

Interview with Executive Director of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics

Ishan Bakshi & Rahul Jacob  |  New Delhi 

Ending open defecation is critical to the success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But simply building toilets, which the programme seems to largely focus on, is unlikely to yield the desired outcome, says Dean Spears, Executive Director of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) in Delhi, in an interview with Ishan Bakshi and Rahul Jacob. Spears, 32, lived in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, for a couple of years researching the issue and has extensively studied sanitation

Despite much higher income levels, open defecation in India is significantly higher than in sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh. Why is this so?

Open defecation in Bangladesh is three per cent and if you compare it with West Bengal, there is a big difference. At the same level of income, children in Bangladesh are taller and that can be accounted for by open defecation. Obviously, there are cultural differences.

People live in houses that own latrines but they continue to defecate in the open. Households build latrines because grandma is getting old or because they have a new daughter-in-law. But it’s still basically the case that the person will use it for a specified time. This highlights the fact that simply building latrines is not enough. We have to encourage people to use these.

We have a culture of purity and pollution which teaches people that it is bad to accumulate faeces near their home.

Then, we have false beliefs about how long it will take for the pits to fill up. Given that people are already worried about how quickly these pits fill up and are thinking about this, how are we going to get them to use it now?

If people aren’t ready to admit what the problem is, then we can’t solve it. People in rural India know it’s about purity and pollution and they’ll tell you. It’s part of the fabric of life. State governments don’t find it that surprising.

Open defecation has gone down by one percentage point every year and that means it will go away 50 years from now. My best guess is that over that period, if we continue with business as usual, about six million babies and children will die and that’s a big problem. This is not only killing children; it’s stunting physical and cognitive development (among children who survive) and that means it’s stunting the economy too.

The current government, as well as the previous one, has undertaken a massive exercise in building toilets. Are there enough toilets? Is the situation better in states with better governance?

Open defecation in rural Gujarat and Tamil Nadu is almost as high in the 2011 census as in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And, you look at the northeastern states, which nobody can say are better governed, and you see much lower open defecation.

The Government of India does provide better facilities than many countries around the world such as in Africa and Bangladesh. But 60 per cent of open defecation in the world is in India and it’s not because people in other countries are using fancy toilets.

While the government says we’ve built toilets, at the ground level nobody wants it. If you don’t build a road, people are going to complain. But if you don’t build toilets, people aren’t going to complain. There is no democratic pressure from the ground. It’s very hard to get millions of people to do what they don’t want to do. What we really need in rural India is to find a way to get people to use the toilets in place.

How should the government go about tackling this issue?

I know a lot about how bad this is but I don’t know what the solution is going to be. Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is essentially the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan of the previous government and the total sanitation programme with a new name. It is simply proposing to build a bunch of latrines. But no thought has gone into how to change behaviour and attitudes. Simply building latrines is not a serious effort to end open defecation by 2019 or 2022 or by 2039.

If there is anything good coming out of the Swachh Bharat programme, it’s the idea that they might do a real latrine survey and measure open defecation. This will tell us about each state, every other year, and then we can try and think about how to solve the problem.

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First Published: Fri, March 20 2015. 00:39 IST